Leeks and Improv Dinners

I distinctly remember a time at which I did not know what a leek was. Sure, any six-year-old could boast the same thing, but I didn’t actually discover the wondrous leek until I was in high school. I must have somehow gotten it into my head to make some potato soup, given my obsession with that particular starch. To be truthful, I was addicted to all kinds of starch. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I used to take nothing but a sleeve of crackers for my lunch when I was in high school. I suppose I just had more pressing things to do with my time than to make myself something more nourishing than a sleeve of crackers: writing copiously in my journal (with rainbow-colored inks, no less), cramming for AP history, braiding my hair, attempting (not totally successfully) to shape fabric scraps into long and flowing skirts. Having recently become a vegetarian, I fully embraced what were usually my three restaurant options: veggie burgers, bean burritos, and baked potatoes.

Hoping to introduce some shadow of versatility into my life, I must have looked up a recipe for potato soup and found this mysterious ingredient: leeks. Ironically enough, I had just started a job at one of the city’s only natural food markets. I think I recall looking for leeks in the produce section, and I definitely remember shoving the long and strangely cylindrical object in the fridge. For some reason, it was in a brown paper bag.

I can’t remember making that soup at all, or how it tasted, but I thought of it this week because I am about to make potato leek soup again. It really hasn’t been so long, I will confess, that leeks have been a normal part of my life. I didn’t even understand that they were somewhere on the onion family tree until I left the remains of one in my kitchen trash overnight. Oh wow, was it pungent in the morning.

I’ve been reflecting on my cooking history these past few weeks because I’m trying out a new technique in the kitchen. It’s not the use of a fancy mandoline, or slow-rising my bread dough (though that’s not a bad idea), or even breaking in the pasta maker I have yet to acquire. It’s just a bit of an emancipation from the way I have been cooking for as long as I can remember.

In a nutshell (since we’re talking about food anyway), I have been very attached to my recipes. Not my recipes. But ones I’ve scrounged up from cookbooks and magazines and blogs. I’ve never strayed too far from them, since I’ve never really considered myself to be an expert in kitchen alchemy: how things fit together, how much water you need to cook rice, how to balance the notes of sweet and sour and bitter and salty and even umami.

It’s not that I really understand now either. But for some reason, I feel the need to give myself a bit more room for experimentation. So, what I am doing these days is going to the store and buying what looks good. Then I come home, cram it all in the fridge, and ask myself: “Now what can I make with this?”

This week I wound up with some radishes, a parsnip, potatoes, three shallots, a bunch of Italian parsley, a head of cauliflower, a few bell peppers, and a leek or two, among other things. So far I have concocted some roasted vegetable quinoa (which I topped with some leftover mustard vinaigrette) and some carrot ginger soup. As I pondered the ingredients I have on hand to determine the next dish, I realized, of course: potato leek soup. It’s been a lot of fun following my intuitions, and whims even, in place of my usual attempt to perfectly recreate something someone else has designed. I affectionately call these most recent attempts of mine my improv dinners.

I’ve also been thinking about cooking in more general terms as a result of this kitchen overhaul. I’ve always been intensely interested in the staples of other kitchens. I have a friend who always has kale on hand. He says it’s really good on pizza. Lover of all things crunchy, I’ll believe that. I have another friend who is never without her vanilla yogurt. My little brother puts Tapatio hot sauce on everything. I mean everything. He even put it on our Thanksgiving pumpkin fondue. My boyfriend (now my husband!) almost always has an eggplant on hand for a quick sauté, and a squash of some kind when they’re in season.

It’s refreshing and kind of delightful to see how the variety of the individual is displayed in the kitchen. And it also invites me to a particularly exhilarating opportunity for reinvention. What are my staples? What are the things I keep around now that I didn’t six months ago, two years ago; what are the things I always have on hand that I didn’t know existed two years ago? Our kitchens define us in such interesting ways; it’s just one of many arenas in which we carve out our identities.

As I look back on my kitchens past, I see that there is an evolution, and not only in my cooking methods and preferences. My staples map me: where I have been, what I have been reading, with whom I’ve been eating. A few years ago, spinach lasagna was the only dinner-party-worthy dish I knew how to make. In my stressful months of qualifying exam preparation, I’d consider it a red-letter evening if I had enough energy to make myself some pancakes. But thankfully in the past few years I’ve made time for exploring new flavors. I’ll admit that I’m spoiled rotten to be living in a place where such a huge variety of fresh produce is both available and affordable. It’s here that I’ve come to love kumquats and golden kiwis and shallots, and, yes, leeks. It’s here that I’ve learned how to toast bulgur and barley, how to braise fennel, how to make my own vegetable stock. It’s here that I’ve come to embrace the most delicious and stinky of cheeses: Gorgonzola, Stilton, Blue. It’s here that my kitchen has come to revolve around fresh pressed garlic and chopped sage, thyme, and oregano.

I know that I won’t always live in a place where acquiring these ingredients, which have become my staples, will be easy. But there’s a part of me that believes I’ll somehow carry them with me, wherever I may go. They’ve become a part of who I am, so I will bring my leeks with me, in their brown paper bag.

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